Jawaharlal Nehru visited New York in 1960 to attend the 15th anniversary of the UN. It was before the Cuban missile crisis and the world was just waking up to the Cuban brand of communism under Fidel Castro. But Nehru noted the importance of the 1959 revolution in Cuba and soon after reaching New York, he went to the African-American neighbourhood of Harlem, where Castro was staying. The Cuban leader was surprised to see Nehru as he was just 34 and unknown.
Castro told Nehru that he could not get a hotel room in New York. So he had complained to UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold and said that he would be compelled to stay on the UN compound but then somehow had found himself an accommodation in Harlem. He loved to recollect the incident of how Nehru surprised him by arriving to see him.
The 1950s was the decade of military blocs and a number of developing countries were joining these blocs, led by the USSR and the USA. India kept away from such groups and used the platform of non-alignment for campaigns for Goa (1961), Bangladesh liberation (1971) and our struggle against racism in whole of Africa.
Voice that mattered
Cuba was a small country but Castro’s voice mattered. Nehru met Castro only once but it was during the tenure of Indira Gandhi that ties with Cuba prospered. His most significant cooperation was during the Angolan civil war when the non-aligned countries backed the cause of Angolan independence. Our cooperation was also due to our common friendship with the USSR that deepened during 1966-’77.
My personal interaction with Castro came in 1983 when Mrs. Gandhi appointed me Secretary-General of the 7th NAM summit. The summit was to take place in Baghdad but Iraq could not hold it due to the war with Iran. Mrs. Gandhi called me to prepare for the summit in just a few months time.
Soon afterward, a Cuban delegation came to see the venue and, after some initial discussion over security issues, approved the security measures placed. At the time of the summit, we were worried about ego clashes among leaders of various countries as several non-aligned member states like Iran and Iraq were involved in bilateral disputes. Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organisation felt humiliated on discovering that he was placed after King Hussein of Jordan. The Jordanian king and Arafat had been on opposite sides for some time as the Lebanese civil war was raging and Arafat had just been exiled from Lebanon due to lack of support. He threatened to leave and my deputy rang me up, seeking help. I rang up Mrs. Gandhi and requested her to bring Fidel Castro to the main hall of Vigyan Bhavan so that he could deal with Arafat. So, on March 7, the day of the summit, before others arrived, she brought Castro to deal with Arafat’s tantrums.
Castro asked Arafat, “Are you a friend of Indira Gandhi?” To this, Arafat replied, “Friend? I consider Indira Gandhi my elder sister and I am her brother.”
Sensing opportunity, Castro said, “In that case, you should behave like her brother and stay for the summit.” Arafat smiled and cancelled his plans.
( Natwar Singh is a former External Affairs Minister of India )
(As told to Kallol Bhattacherjee)